Here is a link to a short promotional video about our current work in Peru, produced for the Oxford University website.
The current work in Peru is funded by a grant from the Natural Environment Research Council, and a European Research Council Advanced Investigator Award.
The current project is named CHAMBASA (Challenging Attempt to Measure Biotic Attributes along the Slope of the Andes), which translates in Peruvian Spanish into "a whole lot of work!"
I am in Peru catching up on our six-month long expedition to measure plant traits along the Andes-Amazon slope.
The field team had been almost continuously since April, and will continue until October. It is a huge and amazing logistical effort, perhaps the most ambitious project I have ever attempted.
They are just over half way through, and I am visiting them at the remotest site, Trocha Union plot 4. To get to this plot involves driving to the top of the slope, at Tres Cruces at 3700 m, with a spectacular view on Andean peaks and the forests below. Then we hike down for 3-4 hours on an old Inca trail, until we come across the field camp.
There are about 15 people in the team, most of them Peruvian. The people currently in the field include three climbers, a cook, and many students, and one American postdoc, Allie. The field camp is spectacularly isolated, perched on this wild ridge in Manu National Park, but is nicely set up. A field lab run by generators has been set up, and everyone sleeps in tents scattered around the forest.
After so many months in the field, the team is working to a smooth routine. Their dedication, motivation, persistence and constant good humour is a joy to witness. The team have been working on the collection for months now, and have a smooth rhythm of work and collection and processing of the samples, all to the accompaniment of the students' eclectic music collection. It is important to remember the dedication and sheer hard work of this field team as we analyse and write up the results in future years, and hopefully enable many of these students to write up projects and papers.
The surrounding cloud forest is amongst the most beautiful of all our plots around the world, dense in tree ferns and majestic moss-clad trees. It is quite a silent forest, but for the occasional flutter of mixed-species flocks of understorey birds. Camping can be damp at times and frankly rather cold - this is the last plot before we descend into the warm lowlands.
After a day I slip into the rhythm of the camp routine and the delightful spectacle of this beautiful cloud forest, perched alone on a mountain side on edge of the greatest rainforest on Earth.
We have a special thematic issue coming out on Monday on the past, present and future of African rainforests. This will be in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. The issue is available at the journal website herehttp://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/current
Thanks to the support of the Waterloo Foundation and through some authors finding their own support, many of the articles are Open Access. This is particularly important as I hope these articles can reach an African audience that cannot afford journal subscriptions.
I am genuinely quite proud of this issue - I think it makes some nice advances by bringing together various strands of research in African rainforests, and includes some real state-of-the-art analyses.
There has been some nice coverage in the media, in particular an excellent article in Mongabay (the best source I know of for thoughtful news and analysis of rainforest issues - I recommend bookmarking the site).
There was also prominent coverage about the story about reducing rates of deforestation on BBC news.
The synthesis paper can be downloaded here and gives a fairly decent overview of the insights that have emerged It was a very educational process editing this issue, and I have learnt a lot in the process. Here is an extract from the synthesis paper...
This thematic issue has highlighted the many-faceted uniqueness (or “exceptionalism”) of the African humid forest biome. Other tropical forest regions may also have some of these features in common with Africa, but this particular combination of features characterises much of the African rainforest biome. Key among these are:
· the extensive history of climate variation, biome expansion and retreat, and human interaction with the biome,
· the relatively dry and cool climate when compared with other major tropical forest regions
· the relatively low plant species diversity and yet extremely high animal biomass (in the non-heavily hunted forests).
· complex patterns of customary and state land tenure built in long histories of low-level forest exploitation
· the dominance of selective logging, small-scale farming and bushmeat hunting as the major forms of pressure on the rainforest biome, in contrast to the agro-industrial pressures that dominate in the tropical Americas and Asia.
· the particular context of mineral and oil driven economies of Central Africa, resulting in unusually low rates of deforestation and agricultural activity
· the particular governance and poverty challenges and civil conflict context of the African tropical forest giant, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
and here is our final paragraph..
"This synthesis has highlighted many surprising aspects of the African rainforest biome, and how different it is in many aspects from other, perhaps better understood, rainforest regions. It has also highlighted how little we know and how much there is still to discover. There are reasons for concern, such has the heavy levels of defaunation and the potential impacts of climate change, and reasons for hope, such as the low rates of deforestation and the possible resilience of rainforest species to climate change."
"We call on the research and policy communities to redouble efforts to give this fascinating rainforest continent the attention it so richly deserves."
We have a paper just published in the International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology (a new departure for me). The work was done by student Aoife Bennett-Curry for her MSc dissertation. It explores the complexity of demand for and supply of charcoal in Amazonian Peru, to supply urban demand in Lima (mainly for grilling chicken!). It was quite a fascinating detective trail from the small-scale frontier communities of Amazonia to the massive urban metropolis in a desert.
The abstract is below, and the paper can be downloaded from my publications list here.
Leakage effects in natural resource supply chains: a case study from the Peruvian commercial charcoal market
Aoife Bennett-Curry, Yadvinder Malhi and Mary Menton
Wood charcoal is generally viewed as a rudimentary form of energy. It is often understood in terms of its role of providing rural poor populations with basic energy needs, and/or the contribution its production makes to local forest degradation. More recently, the potentially much larger impact of urban demands on natural resources is attracting attention. Rural/urban supply chains are becoming an important research focus as nations try to start aligning with international environmental agreements by providing more honest environmental data regarding deforestation and associated emissions. This paper presents results from quantitative and qualitative research investigating the commercial charcoal supply chain servicing the metropolitan area of Lima, the capital of Peru. Long-term conservation initiatives protecting the species algarrobo (Prosopis spp.) were found to have caused a leakage effect in which the species shihuahuaco (Dipteryx spp.) from the Amazon region of Ucayali is compensating for the reduced production of algarrobo charcoal. Charcoal production in the urban area of Pucallpa, Ucayali is estimated to be more than eighty times the official figures, the vast majority of which goes to service the thousands of chicken brasseries in Lima. Commercial Amazonian charcoal is produced predominantly from sawmill by-product, and thus not found to be a direct threat to the rainforest. However, reduced availability of the by-product of the preferred species shihuahuaco to charcoal producers raises concern that this species is being heavily overexploited in the region.
For the weekend birthday celebration for Luke, we take him and seven of his school friends (and Kaya) camping at Youlbury Scout Activity Centre, on Boars Hill just outside of Oxford. The weekend is sizzling, by far the hottest of the year, and the camping is just perfect, pitched up against a delicious old woodland conservation area. The kids do lots of activities such as zip-wiring, climbing and go-karting, but to me the most magical time is when they just explore the woods, either exploring them with me on a nature treasure hunt, or else just hanging out making games and stories in the woods.
I have just finished reading “Feral” by George Monbiot, and extraordinary and inspirational book about rewilding, which I will comment more on this later. But here is an appropriate quote.
“Of all the world's creatures, perhaps those in greatest need of rewilding are our children. The collapse of children's engagement with nature has been even faster than the collapse of the natural world. In the turning of one generation, the outdoor life in which many of us were immersed has gone. Since the 1970s the area in which children may roam without supervision in the UK has decreased by almost 90%, while the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places has fallen from over half to less then one in ten.
Parents are wrongly terrified of strangers and rightly terrified of traffic. The ecosystem of the indoor world has become even richer and more engaging…”
It has been a full on but just fantastic meeting. I think this annual meeting has become my favourite big meeting to attend. What I enjoy is that it is all focussed on what I love so much, which is tropical forests, but within that subject area I learn so much about subjects and disciplines I know so little about, from Geo-genomics to Seedling Competition to Trophic Cascades. I come away so much more educated than when I arrived, and so delighted with the new insights that emerge from every meeting. In addition, the participants have a common passion that bonds us, a shared appreciation of how wonderful it is to work and walk in a tropical rainforest.
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University